Let's blackmail the young into doing good

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted May 1999

There's a sad if astonishing scene in Martin Scorsese's film biography "Raging Bull" in which a former world champion boxer, short on cash, takes it into his head to pawn the jewels from his championship belt. He whacks at the enormous, bejewelled buckle with a hammer until some of the precious stones come loose. In the next scene, the boxer (played by Robert DeNiro) looks obviously disappointed by the sum he's been offered, as his local pawnbroker patiently explains the undersized jewels would have been worth more if he'd left them in the belt.

Why is the scene sad? The character of boxer Jake LaMotta is portrayed as a fellow who means well, but whose virtues of courage and persistence never quite compensate for an inability to fully understand the world around him, except in the simplest terms. He had been told his belt was valuable; he misunderstood why.

Today, numerous public officials who are presumably far brighter and better educated than Mr. Scorsese's fictionalized Jake LaMotta (and thus have no similar excuse) make a similar mistake when it comes to the notion that a good citizen is one who voluntarily devotes some portion of his or her time to helping out the other members of his or her community.

Put at its simplest and most absurd, these officials -- from Mr. and Mrs. Clinton on down -- conclude that if current levels of volunteerism are good, more volunteerism would be even better, and the best way to get more volunteerism is to make it ... well, mandatory.

Mandatory volunteerism. When you have in your hands the power of the state to withhold anything from a diploma to a work permit to a driver's license, what could be simpler?

Throughout the country we have seen proposals that high schools kids be required to volunteer a few hours a week emptying bedpans down at the local nursing home as a condition of high school graduation. It'll be good for their souls to do some good deeds for other, you see. So why not force
them?

Now, California Gov. Gray Davis has joined the pack, announcing he would like community service required as a condition of graduation for all students at California state colleges and universities.

''One of the ethics of the World War II generation was a sense of obligation to the future, and an appreciation for what they inherited. That is getting away from us,'' Davis said last Thursday.

What's wrong with encouraging folks to help the less fortunate? Not a thing. The problem comes when we confuse moral "encouragement" with government coercion, withholding a diploma which a student has earned -- a diploma which is only supposed to certify academic achievement -- because
the student is in a dispute with some state bureaucrat about how much "service" he or she has performed, and whether it's the kind that should "count."

After all, we can't just take the student's word for the amount of time "served," can we? There have to be state-approved forms, and more state bureaucrats to approve and stamp them. Not to mention "applications for approval of program as a certified community service," and committees to judge those applications, followed by criminal prosecutions for "community service documentation falsification."

Make no mistake, even though Gov. Davis did not immediately define what he means by "community service," a kid who demonstrates the energy and initiative required to start his own small business while in college, creating paying jobs for five or six fellow students, and providing the public with a product or service it needs and wants, is not going to be allowed to count that as a "community service."

Oh, no. We all know that's not "community service." "Community service" is half a dozen students digging an unnecessary ditch, and half a dozen more following along to fill it in. "Community service," as defined by these socialist potentates, must teach some lesson other than the basic, sensible rule of capitalism -- that the market helps us identify our most valuable skills by paying us the most for them.

After all, going to work -- and especially spending our paychecks -- can be fun, and productive, and even lead to better paying jobs later on. And what good would it do to encourage kids to simply learn a job skill and get paid for it, when the real lesson being sought here is that government has the power to force us to do unpleasant things against our will, and without compensation, whenever it darn well pleases?

At the risk of stating the obvious, it's nice when young people learn how good it can feel to help others, out of the goodness of our hearts. But the lessons learned by slave laborers -- shirking, sabotage, resentment, and escape -- are quite different.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His new book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at $21.95 plus $3 shipping ($6 UPS; $2 shipping each additional copy) through Mountain Media, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas, Nev. 89127-4422. The 500-page trade paperback may also be ordered via web site http://www.thespiritof76.com/wacokillers.html, or at 1-800-244-2224. Credit cards accepted; volume discounts available.




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